Jamal Joseph's Black Panther memoir tells deeper story

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In April 1969, twenty-one Black Panther activists were rounded up and arrested on conspiracy charges, an event that supercharged an already tense political climate. Among the Panther 21 was sixteen year old Jamal Joseph, author of the recently released memoir Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention, who waited in jail, separated from the others, while the Civil Rights movement built towards crescendo on the outside.

Before teenage Eddie Joseph joined the Black Panther movement, he had been a regular kid from a mixed race family in a Bronx ghetto, trying to get a decent education and be good to his god-fearing adopted grandmother. In his memoir, Joseph describes how he found inspiration and empowerment through his association with the Panthers, changing his name to Jamal in solidarity, and how that early experience started him on a lifetime path of championing disenfranchised people he encountered, either through activism or creative expression, regardless of their race.

Punctuated with the lingo of the movement, Joseph’s account details the conditions in poor Black communities in 1960s New York and the mistreatment he witnessed at the hands of both white and black police officers. Those interactions in turn led to the escalation of confrontations between Panthers and police that ultimately resulted in the arrests of April 1969.

Over the next two years, the ensuing legal battle destroyed lives and trust as the group members learned who among them had been working undercover to bring the organization down. It is at this point of Joseph’s story where the fascinating turns of real life spill over his authorial intentions and enrich the story even more. What emerges is an intriguing self-portrait of how choices made and disappointments suffered in the naïve idealism of youth have unanticipated consequences that have to be reconciled in order for the adult to make peace with where they’ve come.

Joseph’s choices at sixteen ultimately led to more than a decade spent in prison. He continued to speak out about racial inequality and police brutality. He watched the Panthers — his friends and cohorts — fall apart due to factional rifts. He got strung out on drugs. He became an activist for ridding the community from drugs. He missed vital years with his family while he was incarcerated. And then he learned to channel his energy into creative outlets like playwriting. He educated himself and others around him and after his release, became a professor at Columbia University and was nominated for an Oscar.

Despite all those lost years, the text gives the distinct impression that the Joseph of today lives with few regrets. His belief in the cause that inspired his teenage idealism seems unwavering despite what he had to give up to act on it. He describes his devotion then and now with equal passion and sincerity.

In the end Panther Baby is as interesting a read for what Joseph reveals about himself between the lines as it is for what he tells us up front. He shows through his account of his own experiences that while a man’s behavior may change as he matures, his spirit and his values can be a constant and driving force for change if he protects them from doubt.

Panther Baby by Jamal Joseph is available in hardback now where books are sold, priced at $23.95.

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